IDENTIFIED: ‘An unidentified man is strapped into Sing Sing’s electric chair.’

For my 100th post, I’m going to offer you something special, something a little different from the usual fare. The story of this ‘unidentified man’ at the moment of his death.


True crime buffs and historians will have seen this particular image many, many times. Taken by photographer William van der Weyde, it’s invariably captioned as ‘An unidentified man is strapped into Sing Sing Prison’s electric chair, circa 1900.’

It was taken at Sing Sing, but it wasn’t taken in 1900. That ‘unidentified man’ can now be given a name and a story. So here it is.

The photo was part of a series published the Royal Magazine in 1898. The article describes the original Sing Sing death house, not the one readers might be more familiar with today. That wasn’t opened until 1922 and the second death house didn’t open until 1915. This is the set-up as it was in the beginning.

Sing’s Sing’s first was a quadruple on July 7, 1891. That day Harris Smiler, James Slocum, Joseph Wood and Shibaya Jugiro paid for their crimes. The last was Eddie Lee Mays on August 15, 1963. Between them, the three death houses would claim 614 of New York’s 695 electrocutions.

The ‘unidentified man’ is actually murderer Arthur Mayhew, who walked his last mile on March 12, 1897. Mayhew, convicted of murder-robbery on the testimony of accomplice John Wayne, was the 20th inmate electrocuted at Sing Sing. His crime was unremarkable as murders go, clubbing 68-year old shopkeeper William Powell on Fulton Street. His execution would also have been unexceptional, saving that he hasn’t been properly identified in over a century. Wayne, who received a 15-year sentence and so avoided execution, later retracted his testimony before reverting to blaming Mayhew.

Convicted and condemned, Mayhew found himself awaiting execution for a year. In that time Carl Feigenbaum, Louis Hermann and Charles Pustalka were taken from their cells and executed. Given the original layout of Sing Sing’s pre-death house era, Mayhew would have heard every single detail of their deaths.


As you can see, the death cells were separated from the death chamber itself by only a single door. The condemned wouldn’t actually see anything, white sheets being draped in front of their cells just before an execution, but they could hear absolutely everything.

They could hear another prisoner being led away, hear the door open and close, hear their last words (if they had any), the clunk of the switch being thrown and the hum of flowing electricity. As a final torture, they could hear the autopsy being performed, New York State law mandating an autopsy immediately after an execution. The autopsy room at Sing Sing was next door to the death chamber for convenience.

The convenience of prison staff, of course, not prison inmates. They didn’t find the clunk of the switch, the dull hum of electricity and the shrill whine of a bone saw the slightest bit convenient. In fact, it had a nasty (though unsurprising) tendency to drive them insane. When Sing Sing set its record on August 7, 1912 by electrocuting seven inmates one after another, those awaiting death created havoc. So did those whose dates were still approaching.

They were spared quite as much suffering when it was Arthur Mayhew’s turn. Mayhew, originally one of two executions scheduled that day, would have heard the other prisoner being told his sentence had been commuted and he was to be reassigned into Sing’s Sing’s general population.

With this last, most uplifting thought in his mind, Arthur Mayhew would die alone and, until now, unidentified.

His executioner, the world’s very first ‘State Electrician’ remained as close to anonymous as possible, though by his own choice. Edwin Davis was man fearful of being identified. The public knew his name and only a rough idea of what he looked like. He would journey to Sing Sing discreetly, having arranged with a railroad company  for its train to pick him up and drop him off at a spot between stations before and after an execution. He permitted no photographs and once lambasted assistant Robert Elliott (later New York’s third State Electrician) for once using his name while ordering dinner.

The layout of Sing Sing’s first death chamber was designed so official witnesses and reporters wouldn’t even see him do his deadly work. As you can see from the image below, the man in the background on the left (sometimes incorrectly identified as Davis) was actually puling a cord, not the switch. The cord was connected to Davis’s hand as he stood in the closed-off booth directly behind the chair. One pull told him to throw the switch, a second pull told him to cut the power so doctors could make their checks. If the prisoner was still alive, the cord was pulled again to order as many shocks as were needed.


Mayhew needed only the standard two jolts before dying, one to kill him and another to make absolutely sure. He was certified dead little over a minute after the cord was pulled and Davis threw the switch. As he was led into the chamber he clutched a crucifix, a fact confirmed by press reports published on March 13, the day after he died.


As he was being strapped down he uttered his final words;

“Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!”

His end, at least, was mercifully brief. Though not so brief there wasn’t time for another picture:


As Mayhew is listed by most sources as ‘unidentified,’ the first photograph of an electrocution in progress is commonly held to be that of Ruth Snyder, executed at Sing Sing in 1928. The image is widely considered one of the most important and distinctive in the history of journalism and is still used in some journalism courses for teaching purposes. It made journalistic history at the time.


Snyder was illicitly photographed by reporter Tom Howard just after the current was turned on, using a hidden camera concealed in his trouser leg. Given that Mayhew is specifically named in the archived article in the Royal Magazine (published in 1898) and that Sing Sing records and contemporary news reports list Mayhew as having been executed on March 12, 1897, it reasonable to say that these images are of Mayhew and that the world’s first electrocution photographs were in fact taken some thirty years earlier than commonly thought.

The image also has its place in popular culture. It’s easily found online and provided the inspiration for the James Cagney film ‘Picture Snatcher.’ Curiously, while Cagney played a newspaper photographer who illicitly photographed a woman in the electric chair, probably the most famous scene of his entire career is at the end of classic ‘Angels with Dirty faces’ in which Cagney (playing gangster ‘Rocky Sullivan’) has to be dragged kicking and screaming into Sing Sing’s chair. Cagney himself never clarified whether his character was actually panicking or was feigning fear to benefit the ‘Dead End Kids,’ preferring the audience to decide for themselves.

I somehow doubt Arthur Mayhew, who always protested his innocence, would have appreciated his singular place in the chronicles of crime. Or his place as a small-time pop culture icon, either.







7 responses to “IDENTIFIED: ‘An unidentified man is strapped into Sing Sing’s electric chair.’”

  1. True Crime Buff Avatar
    True Crime Buff

    It’s not Mayhew. The photos are obviously posed; it is a recreation of what an execution would look like, using actors. How would they have been taken, with what kind of rapid-fire camera in 1897? There is no blurring, or feeling of real life action. And the article says that Mayhew cried out his innocence at the last moment, and had to be rushed to the chair. And had such spectacular pictures existed, would they have been published a year later, and in a British magazine? I will concede one thing, however — that is definitely the Old Old Death Chamber at Sing Sing, in use from 1891 to 1905 –there are other photos of it when it was not in use. Ruth is still the first.


    1. robertwalsh1975 Avatar

      If I might quote the Royal Magazine article:

      ‘When the final moment came the murderer listened to persuasion and left his cell without resistance.’

      A two-quart bottle of ammonia was kept nearby to be dropped if a prisoner resisted, its fumes intended to incapacitate a recalcitrant inmate, but it wasn’t used. Warden Sage managed to persuade Mayhew to go quietly instead of being forced, something confirmed in newspaper reports as reporters were needed to witness executions under New York State law.

      New York’s policy on media access fluctuated from almost free access to banning reporters from being in the room when it was done, relying instead on whatever officials decided to tell them. I haven’t found any other newspaper reports mentioning any form of struggle or Mayhew needing to be ‘rushed to the chair.’

      William van der Weyde was also highly connected, coming from a privileged background and a competent photographer. He could easily have used more than one camera for the job, although I can find no list of what equipment he actually used on this occasion.


    2. I’m not sure what you actually mean by “rapid fire” camera, but I believe you thinking of when people had to sit there for a few minutes while the cap was off of the camera and for the image to develop onto the photo medium itself. It had been decades by this point since that was the tech used. That was for daguerreotypes and ambrotypes (mostly, there were a few other lesser used methods), these were used during the 1840’s and 1850’s. By the 1860’s, and definitely by 1897, a camera took a photo just like we do today. You press a button and you have it done. The tech is of course different, but it happened in the blink of an eye. Now, if someone moved you would get blurring during the early years, but by the 1890’s action photos were most definitely possible and clear. In fact, the first movie ever made (at least as far as we know from what still exists and was shown) was made 9 years earlier in 1888. By 1897 camera technology was basically where it stood for decades into the 20th century. Cameras of course got better and better and we did get faster film; but this only made things clearer, especially during action shots. It did not mean that earlier film and cameras did not take photos quickly and by the press of a button. They would only have to set there for one second to get these photos.


    3. Also, images like this about subject like this in the US would have been BIG sellers in the UK during the 1890’s. During the 1880’s to 1900’s the English were fascinated and captivated by US life. They could not get enough about the “wild” US. Western expansion, the land races, the Gold Rush, Native Americans and the Indian Wars, the oil boom, US burgeoning technologies, city life, US art, US crimes, US music, US literature, etc. This photo would have made this magazine sell out in ever news stand in minutes in the UK in 1897.


  2. It’s definitely posed as there is no electrode attached to either leg to complete the circuit as there almost certainly would be in a real execution to carry the current back to the generating set. The strap holding the electrode can be seen on Snyder’s right leg in the photo above. It was also required that the inmate have his right trouser leg slit in order to accommodate the electrode, once again, this is not evident in the photographs.


    1. robertwalsh1975 Avatar

      That’s an interesting point. Come to think of it, his right pants leg would have been slit and peeled well away from the leg electrode to avoid the risk of fire.


    2. It’s a good point, but it does not mean that this did not occur after this photograph was taken. This best way to know is to find a photo of Arthur Mathew from before he was arrested (if it exists) or find a mugshot (as they did begin taking them during this time period). There is nothing that says this is staged or not in these photos, as anything missing could have been done after and photos of this nature were taken during the Victorian Era. It was BIG money for photo of the macabre or the sensational. Victorian society couldn’t get enough. This of course gives reason to stage them; however, this would require the cooperation of the prison, the prison system, and the city government. Not that it couldn’t happen, but it would have been less likely in this setting. If a photo of Mayhew does not exist from earlier, there would be a detailed description of him somewhere that may still exist, as well as possible sketches. This would be another good way to see if it matches. I collect and deal in antique photographs and I can tell you that photos much more sensational and what would be thought unlikely today exist and are not staged. It was common practice to take photos of hangings, execution by firing squad, guillotine executions (however there are staged photos, but these were all taken and presented as such), I can keep going. You can not image some of the photos I have had over the years and even more I have seen in collections, exhibitions, and museums. I understand you being skeptical, but having a photo like this, during this time, and not being staged is not just possible, but probable.


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